Old Man’s River by Richard V. Howard

Isaac Vanderoot received two phone calls that morning. Both triggered some anxiety. The first call came as he examined the guide wrappings on a fly rod. It was from the Senior Center, informing him that his application for an apartment in subsidized senior housing had been approved, although nothing was currently available. The second call came while he rolled the trash barrel out to the curb. It was a voice mail message from his daughter, Christy, in California. “I’ve arranged with United Airlines for you to celebrate your birthday with us. Check your email.”  She had done that before, but not without asking him. 


“How was your flight?” Christy asked.

“Uneventful.” Isaac answered as he tossed his bag on the back seat. He climbed in next to her, accepted a cheek-kiss and reached for the seat-belt

“You must be hungry. We can stop along the way or lunch at home.”

“I’m good,” he said. “Had a snack on the plane.”

“Home it is,” she said, and headed for a ramp onto the Freeway.

“Do you have to drive so fast?”

“Dad! Am I going faster than any of the other cars?”

“Sorry. I feel like we’re competing in a demolition derby.”

“You get used to it.”

Isaac concentrated on the scenery. “Wasn’t there a  row of  tall sycamores along here?”

“They cut them down to widen the road.”

Isaac frowned. They drove in silence for several minutes. “I find it hard to believe we used to live here,” he said.

“Well, I’m glad you’re back for a few days. We have a lot to talk about and plans to make.”

“Such as?”

“Your future, among other things.”

Isaac grunted and tightened his seat belt. He hoped that his neighbor would remember to fill his cats’ water bowl.


Christy hoped to soothe her father’s travel nerves with a house-and-yard tour featuring improvements to the master bath, Rick’s new man-cave and back yard landscape changes. Their journey ended at the kitchen table. After updating him on the activities of his grandchildren over tuna fish sandwiches, a green salad and Chardonnay, she pulled dinner’s lamb chops from the garage freezer and eased into concerned-daughter mode.

   “Rick and I feel bad about you spending your late years alone twelve-hundred miles away.”

   “Am I showing signs of a second childhood?”

   “No, but your family wants you nearby. We enjoy your company…”

   “Ah, my cool wisdom and pithy observations.”

   “Here, have some more wine and don’t be so pithy. I’m serious. Neither you nor we can afford to fly back and forth for holidays and special occasions. You need to be around for Robin and Suzy. You and your grandchildren hardly know each other, and there may be great-grandchildren soon.”

   “We exchange emails all the time,” he countered. “They send pictures.” 

   Isaac understood that his daughter delighted in her extended family. She was an only child, born to parents with wanderlust. She placed a high premium on family and stability. She and Rick had  lived in the same house for more than twenty years. They had roots.

After Betsy died, Isaac became an outlier. He preferred to ignore rather than engage the mainstream. He had to be careful around Christy’s extended family. Smile and look interested. Ask questions, provide no answers. Don’t pontificate. Be careful to avoid subjects related to borders, language and culture. Never mention the good old days or who you voted for.

“We’ve explored this idea before, Chris. I couldn’t even afford HUD housing in this area.” Had he remembered to tell his neighbor to leave a night light on?

Leaning back, Christy smiled broadly and said, “We have a surprise birthday present, Dad.”

Isaac sipped his wine, peered over his eye glasses and waited.

“Rick’s brother Derek, the lawyer,” she began, “recently acquired a small condo in Laguna Nigel in lieu of his fee from a client with sudden negative cash flow. He doesn’t want to be a landlord, but he’ll rent the place to Rick for his costs — taxes and maintenance — probably about what you’re paying now. It’s only 650 square feet, but it’s convenient to everything you  need, including us. ”

   By the look on her face, Isaac knew that he had just been offered a deal he couldn’t refuse.’ Christy was focused on the eventuality of caring for a doddering parent. But, of course…

 “Interesting.’ he said. “When is it available?”

   “The current tenant’s lease expires in November, but we can drive by and ogle the neighbors and the hood.”

   “Yeah, let’s take a look at my surprise birthday present”


Isaac tried to visualize the proposed ‘Senior’ apartment in Boise.  Only 540 square feet – about half the space he had now. But Senior Housing sounded to Isaac like a refugee camp; a place to exist until the war was over. The manager said that he could keep only one cat. Posh. He could not send one of his feline friends to the gas chamber in order to qualify for a rent subsidy. Laguna Nigel would be easier, petwise.


“Rick is taking a new client to dinner tonight,” Christy explained. “Couldn’t be helped. Robin’sat the hospital with Aimee’s grandmother and Suzy is at a seminar in San Diego. We’re on our own tonight with pork chops and the fixin’s.”

   “Sounds good.” Isaac fidgeted with the idea of again melding with the lives of these busy people. “You know, Chris, Laguna Nigel is nice, but I no longer feel comfortable here. The grassy hills and treed ridges are now littered with houses. The roads are clogged with cars, the local pubs are filled with noisy hooligans and I’m too old to learn Mexican. California has become foreign and strange. I think my passport lapsed.”

   “But dad…”

   “There’s no real river within a hundred and fifty miles of Laguna Nigel. I need my river.” Isaac had hiked and fished the river that flowed through Boise for twenty years. It was as close to Heaven as he chose to imagine.

   “The Boise River is beautiful, Dad, but you’re just being provocative and ridiculous.”

   “I also need the mountains to be close and covered with snow in the winter,” he said. “I like reading about problems with cougars, elk and black bears in the streets and back yards of our bemused citizens.”

“So…we have mountain lions and coyotes in our back yards and occasionally bears in our swimming pools. California is as wild as Idaho.”

   “Yeah, I’ve read about your wild life.”

   “Let’s stay on point here,” Christy said. “We just want you close by, part of the family network.”

   Isaac heard  family net. “My cremation insurance is only good in Idaho.”

   “You’re impossible.”

   “Your mother and I moved north in order to lie down in green pastures beside the still waters – and Betsy is still there.”

   Christy frowned and said, “You’re sermonizing, Dad, about an issue that requires facing facts.”

   “Everyone else in this family quotes scripture to explain or justify their life. But with me, it’s a character flaw?”

   His daughter smiled, got up and kissed him on his bald spot. “How about baked potato and broccoli to adorn our pork chops?”


“I would never have thought to marinate pork chops, Chris. Very good.”

   “Thanks. Let’s get back to business.”

“I enjoy my life, Chris. I keep busy, never feel lonely. Got a couple of coffee shop buddies. I’m comfortable.”

   “I do understand, Dad. But you will soon need people around who know that you’re there in case you need help. I worry.”

   “I’m already working on it.”

   “Okay. That’s good. Any results?”

   Isaac told her about the call from the Senior Center. “Moving even twelve blocks will be a struggle.”

   “How many times has Rick moved you? We’ll be there to help wherever you go.”

   “I know and appreciate it,” he said. “Let’s finish this wine on the patio. It’s nice out there when the sun sets over the ocean.”

   “You and Rick used to fish the surf.”

   “The ocean doesn’t speak to me anymore – too vast and impersonal.”

   “And a river speaks to you? Dad, you are obsessed. Maybe you could get a recording of a river and play it when you are out of sorts.”

   “Not a bad idea. A river  unlocks qualities in me that the ocean, the church or the bedroom never could.” 

   “If there were a National Weirdest Dad Contest,” she said, “I’d surely finish in the top ten.” Isaac smiled as she poured the rest of the wine. I do not have to cross this Rubicon now, he thought. I will enjoy being pampered by my family for a few more days, then go home and go fishing.


“G’morning, Isaac.”

 “Same to you, George,” Isaac said, as he looked around. “I need a spool of that French four-pound leader.”

   “Back to fishin’ the river, are ya?”

   “Yeah. It’s time to put a few more in the freezer before it gets too cold to wade.”

   “Well, I’ve got some new insulated waders over there you might want to take a look at.”

   “Maybe another time, George. My fly kit is near empty. All I have are on my hat.” Isaac turned toward the fly case muttering about blue duns, woolly worms, hellgramites, gray ghosts, wulffs and pink ladies.

Later, as another customer approached the counter, George nodded toward the old man going out the door. “That guy walked in here the day I opened The Fly Shop. He once told me that President Hoover – an inveterate fly fisherman – said that ‘all men are equal to fish.’ I’ve used that on my sign ever since.  

“He uses split bamboo rods that he builds himself. He’s very knowledgeable. Used to be a regular contributor to Field and Stream.”


Isaac dressed and made his breakfast before the sun appeared. As he ate, he envisioned the quick stream, slapping itself silly in the wind, its dancing riffles and flat dimpled pools, changing and undulating as it flowed by – then the quick turn of a trout in the lip of the current and the swoop of a bird as it, too, picked an insect out the cool, morning air.

   Maybe Christy was right, he thought. ‘Obsessed’ was too strong a word, but nothing so enlivened his spirit as thinking about the rivers that he had waded, boated and pondered as they hosted sunrises and sunsets or wore fogs and rainy mists – from the rock-bottomed creek that ran near his home in Ohio when he was seven, to the majestic Hudson of his thirties and forties. He enjoyed speaking their names as they came to mind: Housatonic, Saranac, Naugatuck, Saugus, Esopus, Beaverkill, Au Sable, Neversink, Manistee, Little Pigeon, Klamath, Payette, Susquehanna…. Indians, trappers, soldiers and settlers found the rivers that meant place and life to those who named them long ago. Rivers were life-giving necessities then. Isaac thought of them now as necessary restoratives. By a river, he always found those parts of himself that got lost in city subways and crowds and offices and airplanes and four-star hotels. In a river’s earthiness and balance he could always find peace with the person he wanted to be.

One day, as he crouched on the river bank munching on trail mix, he saw Betsy. She smiled up at him from a quiet pool, waiting. It must be nice there, he thought, wherever. He recalled that the ancient Greeks thought that a river separated light and dark, the passage from one world to the next. Isaac marveled at their poetic insight. Surely, they understood how to cast a fly.


Isaac always found a place to park on the university campus within a block from the river. A professor friend sent him a parking sticker for his windshield every year on his birthday in exchange for fish for the professor’s patio smoker.

 The morning sky was cloudless. A slight breeze vexed the birch leaves. Cottonwoods on the the river’s edge stood tall as if to see better up-stream. The willows bowed respectfully to its power as it bounced over boulders and rinsed layers of slate from which rhododendrons burst.                                               

The river pushed against Isaac’s legs as he carefully felt his way along the bottom. For thirty minutes, he cast casually over trout feeding on morning duns thirty yards downstream from the Capitol Street Bridge; but the fish were finicky on that hatch. When everything went quiet, he moved farther downstream and tied on an Olive Hackle. He stood knee-deep in a grass bed, casting carefully, his eyes glancing back and forth from his line lying on the water to the tree limbs reaching over the opposite bank. Every few minutes a couple of joggers appeared and disappeared on the paved path that followed along the north side of the river. 

 Isaac was thinking about the course of water flowing around him. It had already run fifty miles out of the mountains, and had fifty more to run before it merged with the Snake on its way to the Columbia on its way to the Pacific Ocean, when, suddenly, a large Rainbow trout curved up half out of the water, felt the hook and sped off downstream. The drag on his reel was not going to stop it. Isaac applied additional drag by letting the line run between his thumb and fingers on his right hand while holding the rod high with his left. It was the largest trout he had ever seen in this river.

 His next thought was that he had tied his fly on a four-pound tippet and that fish might go eight or nine pounds. It slowed and turned before it reached a fallen tree where the river had undercut the bank. Good thing it turned; it had run off most of the line on his reel. The fish came back up stream toward him, faster than he could reel in line. He stripped the line back through the guides by hand, letting it fall in the water.

 Half way back to him, the fish turned and leaped completely out of the water, shaking its head as it fell back with a splash that produced a shout from the bike path. He and his fish had an audience. 

  It was a standoff. Ten minutes later, the fish was still twenty yards downstream. It allowed itself to be urged toward the scoop net slowly, but with sudden, quick left and right moves and surface rolls before flipping its tail in the air defiantly and heading away.

  The sharp bend in the top quarter of his forty-year-old fly rod did not concern him – it was that very thin thread of nylon attached to the hook. That he did not use barbed hooks meant that he had to keep the line taut at all times or the fish could shake it loose. That was the challenge of fly fishing – enticing a fish to take the fly required tackle so light that it could be broken easily if the fish got it lodged between  rocks, twisted around any debris in the water, or any insensitivity in line or rod handling on the part of its two-legged opponent.

  Spectators along the bike path could see the fish when it swam near the surface, even before it jumped out of the water. Some people shouted advice to Isaac; others offered advice to the fish. Two small boys jumped up and down, yelling. People who noticed him in the river often gave him a friendly wave, but he had never received this kind of attention. He felt a little uncomfortable. 

  Trout fishing at its best was a private experience, and there was something primal about it even in the middle of the city. There were ten- and twenty-story buildings a few blocks beyond the trees, and restaurants that charged fifteen dollars for six ounces of trout decorated with sliced almonds and watercress.

  A tree limb floated into Isaac’s view along the far bank. He saw it immediately as a problem. The fish would see the limb’s tangle of small branches as a shield against the relentless force pulling it where it did not want to go. Isaac  knew that if the fish reached the limb, he would lose it. 

  As the fish swirled toward the limb, Isaac held the rod high and vertical. He allowed the rod’s strong, flexible tip to keep the line taut while he moved toward the opposite bank. He gently eased the fish to the upstream side of the limb. 

  The crowd strung along the bike path also realized that the floating limb gave the fish a better chance to escape. Looking down into the water, they could see how far the limb extended under the surface.

   “Watch out for that tree limb.”

     “Go fish. Go for it.”
  There were now people on both riverbanks watching the contest. The longer it continued, the more people cheered when the fish leaped or made a quick move. The tension abated a few minutes later when the limb floated over a deep spot where the current was stronger and pulled it a few inches past the struggling fish. Seeing its chance floating away, the fish made a bold dash toward the force that gripped its jaw. 

     Isaac was waiting for that dash. He bent the rod back and pulled up the line and dropped it in the water as fast as the fish moved toward him. If  it were to leap out of the water shaking its head now, Isaac would lose it. But the fish was too tired to leap again. 

     The fish began to swim slowly from one side of the stream to the other, offering less resistance now, allowing itself to be pulled closer. For a moment, Isaac saw himself and that fish in like situations, both of them resisting a life-changing future.

     As he drew the big fish closer to his boots, the spectator noise increased. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two police officers on bicycles watching him – probably drawn by the crowd, wondering if someone had fallen into the river.

 The fish and the fisherman were both weary. Isaac backed into shallow water, laid the rod against a bush, picked up the line and carefully drew the fish toward his outstretched  hand. The spectators were silent. Only the fish’s tail moved, slowly. He grabbed it behind the gills, removed the hook from its upper jaw and lifted the two-foot long fish out of the water for the benefit of the spectators.

   Applause and moans. 

  He placed the fish back in the water, moving it back and forth for a minute to make sure it was breathing properly. Then he released it. 

Isaac stood and watched the fish swim, uncertain, toward the middle of the river where it suddenly did a surface-roll salute, flashed its pink side and white belly, and disappeared. Even the police officers cheered. Isaac smiled, waved and waded cautiously out of the river. He was not the only one who could identify with the problems of a fish.

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